Friday, September 28, 2007

Life: Orientation week : done (Acceptance)

As I sit in the Goldsmiths College library I cannot help but miss home. I miss the silence. I have to smile when someone actually whispers in the library here, it is so rare. Others freely shout on cell phones or let them ring incessantly. And even the library itself has an intercom system (think, "clean-up on aisle four... clean-up on aisle four") on which they repeatedly announce impending closings: "The Goldsmiths Library facilities will be closing in one hour at eighteen forty-five, please report to the main checkout desk by eighteen thirty." .... "half an hour...." .... "fifteen minutes...."

I practice breathing meditations and return to my work.

In a spiritual sense, little of this is worthy of such attention. Just noise, just people, just sounds and sights like anywhere. But I feel myself, first in my body, then mind, pulled from my spiritual "home" by this foreign world. So much different, so much unfamiliar. The body doesn't like it much. Why? Insecurity?

Tiny shifts do happen though. I notice CCTV cameras, feel safer; see familiar faces, feel safer; relax with new friends at the flat, feel safer; meditate and work out, feel safer. I am starting to see more smiles, to relax and probably smile more myself as well.

Tied in with the last post, I am sure all of this newness has triggered an evolutionary response of heightened stress-hormones that I am just having to deal with. I read somewhere recently that this is just what we have to deal with. Shy of being an extraordinary yogi like Matteau Ricard (who was able to shut down his startle/stress-response to a gunshot-like noise near his head) our body is just set up to jump into these stress-hormone releases. I'm not sure how much I simply accept that (I am sure we can all become as adept as Ricard, given the practice), but I do agree with the point that came later, namely that what counts is how we deal with this bodily reaction. Do we allow ourselves to get 'heated-up' to the point that we are breathing heavily (even while just sitting in traffic or at our desk)? Do we lash out either subtly by calling other drivers names, mumbling under our breath in anger, or more overtly? Or do we acknowledge the realness of the reaction our body is having and counteract it with calming thoughts and exercises (such as simply breathing slowly and deeply through the nose)?

If we cannot eliminate bodily stress-reactions, or even if we can but just have not developed that capacity just yet, then obviously it is essential to minimize the damage these do to our mind and body (excessive cortisol, a main stress hormone, is linked to the build-up of deep tissue belly fats, hyperglycemia, and adult-onset diabetes). Obviously exercise is hugely important. But a second, and perhaps more important factor may be attitude. The very act/habit of constant worry, and honing in on the negatives, the disastrous possibilities out there, and so on is a key ingredient in the chronic stress that plagues our society.

Life is complicated these days. There is so much to worry about: am I dressed ok, do I speak ok, is my face (skin/hair/etc) ok, do I smile enough, am I doing the right things to get ahead? It's funny. It's one of the reasons I have long been attracted to monastic life. You wear robes, you're mostly silent, hair shaved, mood: contemplative. Somehow that just kind of fits me so much of the time. As a monk in society you are not expected to fit in, you are an outsider, cut and dry. Sometimes that is revered, sometimes ignored, but at least it is there - no worries.

But then I am told, by monks, that it isn't really that simple. Some monks specially alter their robes this way or that, or wear a pin or cloak or something that makes them unique. Some jostle for the approval of higher-ups, some back-bite and seem to lose track of contemplation as a focus in life. So much for those romantic dreams.

So what am I (are we) left with? Just this. Hopefully a smile (I hear using all those facial muscles actually reduces stress). We have the world as it is. And what is the fourth great weapon of the warrior-bodhisattva? Acceptance. Accept that life is a flow, and that the mind may get ever so busy reifying elements of it - labeling, boxing off, trying to exert control, or to find stability. But that is just the busy mind, and the body may get busy too, reacting to these reified elements, but that is just the busy body. Reality stays the same.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Stress and weight

Just found this today:

Is stress making you fat?

It is informative about the physiological and evolutionary mechanisms of stress and why it, perhaps as much as (or more than in some cases) poor diet and/or lack of exercise may be at the root of so many people being overweight.
"Ask the average man or woman off the street if he or she gets stressed out on a regular basis, and you’ll most likely hear an emphatic, "Yes!" So if we can’t eliminate stress, how can we combat the negative effects of the flight or fight response? One of the most obvious ways to combat fat and the ravages of stress is with exercise. Exercise represents a triple threat to body fat. First, exercise burns calories and utilises stored body fat as fuel. Second, working out increases the amount of lean muscle mass your body must provide with fuel on a 24-hour basis. More muscle means less fat...[and third] moderate to vigorous exercise, such as lifting weights, can offset the negative effects of cortisol and insulin... With as little as 10 minutes of strenuous exercise the brain begins to produce beta-endorphins that calm you and decrease levels of the stress hormone."
Very important though is to exercise in moderation (and get plenty of sleep!):
Don’t overdo it. Too much exercise can actually cause additional stress and associated symptoms. Be sure to get plenty of rest. Inadequate sleep increases cortisol levels and reduces leptin, a hormone that signals fullness.

So - I'm off for a nice meal, a relaxing bit of Buddhism reading, and then to the gym.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Life: photos and orientation

Click on either for details and a larger view.

I'm pooped! Two days of orientation have me worn out and I can't wait to get into studies proper next week. What can I say? Orientation has been a bore. As a career student with past studies in the UK, I feel like I know most of what is being covered and any questions I might have will be handled by my department (which I haven't met up with just yet). A good time to practice patience and the letting go of expectations.

I could write pages comparing this place with Bristol, and thus far Bristol wins, hands down. Of course in Bristol I conveniently missed orientation week, thus pushing through the bureaucracy alone the week after everyone else did. But I imagine that, like Bristol, once everything is ironed out things will procede here very nicely.

I am also not quite over the jet-lag which is new for me. In the past I was off and running within a day or two. But again just a bit to adjust to.

The flatmates are great. Most are from Asia and study arts and post-colonial studies, which has led to some good conversation around the kitchen we share.

Alright, 'tis all for now. I've done some reading of Richard Gombrich's book, "Theravada Buddhism" and will post thoughts asap. I am also painfully overjoyed (big smiles across the pond) to be helping in the planning of a wedding - my our wedding - with the beautiful miss McGannon, and it's about time I devote a full post to her.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Life: I'm Back!

Well, what can I say? I'm back.

This is day two back in the UK, the first filled with the drama (trauma) of lugging two 50-pound (that's about 22 kilogram) bags from Heathrow airport to SE London via the tube transit system, followed by about a mile of wandering aimlessly trying to find my flat and a way in. I was doing fine up until the last 1/2 mile or so of wondering, when I hit a quiet side street lined with shady-looking individuals... "Al-roit," I told myself in an odd British accent, "head down, move forward" - awkward bags and all.

Luckily I managed to find my appointed spot and was rewarded with two undergraduate bag-luggers. Joy. Extra joy because I was exhausted (did I mention I only slept an hour and a half en route?) and my room turned out to be on the fifth floor of the flat (good news: great view). Once in my new room I thought, "hmmm... this is like Bristol," and simply passed out for the next four hours. Then I got up and unpacked, and unpacked and unpacked. Then I passed out again, this time for 12 hours.
Waking up this morning was tough. I was sad mostly, my heart still in America, and most of my head too. My stomach was definitely in London though, and it is what finally got me going. I decided to make it a day of exploration, to feel out my little piece of London (photos coming soon). And it's been good. I haven't managed to find a phone card to call home, or even a public phone on which to make such a call, but I did satisfy my stomach with two supermarket trips. The highpoint though was definitely reading an email from Kelly and her latest blog updates. The one about detox and becoming the observer helped me a lot as I work with my own anxieties and defense mechanisms of being in a distant and unknown city.

Anywho - time's up at the net cafe. Until next time.